Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rebuttal to Tripp Stryker's post on rape in comedy

Tripp's post today seems to have stirred up a few responses, and the main reason I let it go through was to open a dialogue about the issue. If you're ticked off, good. You probably should be.

Every screenwriter has a story about "the one that was too edgy for them." If you got a nickel for every script that a writer claimed was "the most loved unfilmed script," you'd probably end up with enough money to produce all of those films. I think most of you out there are aspiring writers so you need to read Joe Eszterhas' The Devil's Guide to Hollywood, for a direct take on one such "unfilmable" script, full of taboos.

In 1989, Eszterhas wore a script called Sacred Cows on spec, intending to offer it to United Artists as the third script of a three-film deal. The plot features a liberal Democratic president running for re-election against a "right-wing McCarthyite demagogue." The President has always been a philanderer and one day on his farm he gets drunk and has sex with a cow.

Unfortunately a right-wing spy snaps a photo of him having sex with the cow and tries to blackmail him out of the race, so the President does the last thing anyone would expect - he comes clean. "Yes, I popped that cow!" he says. And because he tells the truth, he's reelected in a landslide.

The head of United Artists read the script, and when he hit the sex scene he was livid. But he kept reading and then called Eszterhas to say that he cried when he finished the script and he never cries when reading. He thought it was "brilliant" and said that if Eszterhas could attract "major elements" - a director, an actor - they'd consider making it.

Spielberg read it, called it the funniest thing he'd ever read and said he wanted to make it his next movie. In fact, in order to spread around the flack he expected to get for the film, he even tired to get Kubrick to produce it. Kubrick called it possibly "the funniest script he'd ever read" but didn't want to get within a mile of it. Spielberg decided he doesn't want to direct it, but he'll produce it and for a time Bob Zemeckis was set to direct.

Eszterhas recounts how the script went from one hot director to another. Many wanted to do it, but weren't "hot" enough for UA. Others didn't want to touch it, despite thinking it was original and brilliant. At one point, Spielberg is again attached to produce it, until he changes his mind because by then, so much time had passed that he'd become friends with the new President - Bill Clinton.

So the events surrounding Calling Card aren't all that unusual in this town. People write extreme scripts all the time, and end up making a name for themselves in the process. (Or in the case of Eszterhas, adding to their own notoriety.) Now, I'm sure some of you are going, "Okay, fine. But rape isn't funny."

Tell that to the makers of Trading Places.

Confused? Remember the scene where the guy in the gorilla suit ends up in the cage with an amorous male gorilla and the scene ends on a joke based entirely on the fact that this guy is about to get anally violated by a gorilla that mistakes him for a female? Some might laugh, some might not. The fact is, the joke was not only made, but I first saw it on TBS afternoon TV at the age of nine. Then several years later, an episode of The Simpsons featured a nearly identical joke, this time with a panda.

Okay, so bestiality is passable, but we'll all agree that person-on-person rape is taboo and never joked about, right?

Ever see a comedy set in prison? How often is prison rape played for laughs?

Okay, okay... but those are extreme over-the-top jokes. Nobody takes them seriously. In a dignified setting, no one would really make light of rape... unless it's, say, an interrogation scene on a cop show and the cops put the squeeze on a male suspect by implying that unless he talks, they'll make sure he's locked up somewhere where he'll make a popular "girlfriend."

I've seen that a lot on the Law & Orders and CSIs - notably ONLY with male suspects. They never tell a woman. "If you don't tell us exactly how you broke the law, or what you know, we're going to put you somewhere you'll be violated and then laugh about how helpless you are." So that seems to be where the line is.

So is the lesson that rape isn't funny unless the victim is a guy?

I'm not saying it should be funny - but I think it's important to chart how the line moves. And then of course, there's this famous routine from George Carlin (which has been somewhat ruined by the YouTube uploader.)

I agree that the scenario Tripp paints in his post is repugnant and shouldn't be played for laughs on film - but I think it's inevitable that something like that will happen unless we as screenwriters start taking note of the messages we send out. And I'm afraid that one very recent release is going to hasten that job.

A remake of I Spit On Your Grave has just been released. I confess upfront that I've seen neither the original nor the remake. Nor do I plan to. I've read enough disturbing rape scenes as part of my job that I know I have zero interest in seeing this. It's the story of a woman who goes up to a cottage and gets brutally gang-raped by four men. She survives, and the second half of the film depicts her revenge against her attackers. Because since the second half shows her taking vengeance, apparently it's completely acceptable to spend the first half of the film sadistically depicting her violation. Roger Ebert slammed the film, and I generally trust him, so I encourage everyone to read his review if they want a more descriptive take on what's out there.

I refuse to post the key art here, but if you want to see it, Google it or go to Wikipedia. Then tell me it's not exploitative.

It sounds like this film crosses the line from including rape as a plot point, and gets VERY close to being rape as entertainment. And the reason that scares me is because once the "realism" gets that over-the-top, it opens the door very widely for potential parody. Consider the extreme violence of Saw, and then how that beget many, many Saw parodies that played the sadism of those films for laughs.

True, the fact that I Spit On Your Grave probably won't be as huge a hit as Saw might stave off the parodies for a time. But don't kid yourself, we're a LOT closer to the scenario Tripp paints than you probably think. It's human nature. We see something horrible, and if it's too horrible for us to take in, we make a joke of it. But it's how something like Hitler and Holocaust jokes go from being gallows humor to mainstream humor.

The reason Tarantino was able to make realistic violence funny had something to do with how over-the-top violence had been in the decade or so before he broke onto the scene. It was so excessive that viewers ceased to comprehend it with any reality. And hell, they're already primed to laugh at pain and violence! Look at the Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, or America's Funniest Home Videos. All Tarantino did was impose the tropes of those cartoons into the style of the 80s action films. It's how a graphically exploding head goes from horrifying to hilarious.

Here's how I see it going down. We tend to accept crass jokes that make a victim of an entire race or culture if the teller is of that particular culture. In other words, if a Jewish artist like Mel Brooks makes a Holocaust joke, then it's okay to laugh. Eventually everyone else has "permission" to make the joke. Tyler Perry fills his movies with black stereotypes that would get the filmmaker killed if his name was Michael Bay. But since Perry's black, it's okay... and then eventually we forgot why it's not okay for anyone else to do it.

I promise you, some day soon - within the next ten years - an up-and-coming female director will wring comedy out of a male/female rape scene - just as Tarantino got comedy out of brutal violence. This director will probably be a cross between Sarah Silverman and Diablo Cody and she'll be hailed for her "unique voice" and "daring comedic instincts." There will be activist groups up in arms, but the film will do big business and it will be a mainstream hit. It will launch this director's career. The film will not come from an established director. (Any established female director wouldn't take the chance on the material. They'd have too much to lose.)

It will be one of the most talked-about scenes in one of the most talked-about films of that year. The director will be every bit as polarizing as Tarantino was when he hit the scene, but the movie will hit, and people will laugh. They'll be embarrassed at themselves for laughing, might even hate themselves, but that shame will fade, as it always does. Within a year of that release, Hollywood will be filled with spec scripts trying to outdo that rape scene.

Nothing stays taboo forever. Just look at the history. If you think the scenario I laid out can't happen - if you think that 20 years from now someone won't stumble across Tripp's last post and chuckle at how tame it is - then I have just three words for you:

"Prove me wrong."

I really want to hear from you all on this one, especially the many female writers who frequent this blog.


  1. Quick, offhand response because I'm supposed to be working right now. In pretty much any joke, there's a winner and a loser. If you want to make a "taboo" joke work, you need to think about who's getting made fun of and who's coming out on top.

    Mel Brooks's Holocaust humor works not just because Brooks is Jewish. It also works because the result of the joke isn't "tee hee, those Jewish people got killed, isn't that just so funny;" usually the butt of the joke is the Nazis. In a way, much of Brooks's Holocaust humor has an end message of, "These people thought they could destroy us, isn't that hilarious?"

    Tyler Perry I see as more of an in-joke. He's usually comparing black person to black person, so he's using black stereotypes, but not as a way to show that black people are more ridiculous than white people.

    You just have to think about who's getting made fun of in the situation. Are you re-victimizing someone who's already a victim? Then it's probably offensive and exploitative. Are you weakening someone who's traditionally been a threat? Then it's probably innovative and much-needed humor.

    I've heard a few funny rape jokes in my time, but they were all jokes that didn't remind me of my current position in society, which is to say around 25% likely to be raped at some point, and probably by someone I know. Instead, they were jokes that made rapists and/or people perpetuating rape myths look like morons.

    As for the prison rape humor that is for some reason acceptable in our culture, I think it's like any other kind of violence-based humor: it's only funny if it isn't real to you. If you really contemplate the horror of prison rape, then it becomes a lot less acceptable to laugh about it IMO. Same with dismemberment and head explosions: funny if you've never been near a real one, or if they make the one they're showing you somehow completely unreal (which is easily done just by setting up a sufficiently unreal situation).

    I do think you're right, though, that within a couple of decades (or less) rape humor will no longer be "taboo." It's barely taboo now, to be honest. I just hope that when rape humor becomes common on afternoon basic cable programming, it's because sexual assault has also become less common in everyday society.

  2. Um, I guess by "quick" I meant "really long and rambling."

  3. I was going to write a long response to this. I've been learning a lot about editing myself. So, I'll say this...

    Hurting kids and animals, Rape, and suicide are never funny. Some taboos should never be tested.

  4. What really troubles me is that all this is becoming so mainstream in filmmaking and will become so in real life. We are stripping away our dignity. If it's funny to violate one gender/race/orientation/belief it eventually becomes that way for all. Then anything goes and all the beauty and promise that make up people as individuals and a race is wasted.

    It's one thing to depict reality and call attention to something that would benefit society to know about so it can be changed. But to laugh and make it commonplace hurts us all. It makes us all vicitms with no recourse for justice or even for an end to it. If you're the victim, it's no longer funny.

    Like Bitter says nothing stays taboo forever. And maybe that is not a good thing. It's sad and scary to think that my grandchildren's generation could be so devoid of human decency the there is no such thing as rape, but only taking what we want when we want, to hell with the dignity of the victims and the human race.

    I probably didn't express myself well-I need to move on but I wanted to comment before I forgot. If I sound judgmental, so be it. The lines have to be drawn somewhere or there will be no lines, then where will be, where will you be when they come to rape you?

  5. Someone who will make that scene is not a "unique voice". It's someone breaking a taboo for the sake of breaking it. That for me is the opposite of creativity and imagination. Provoking for the sake of provoking shows despair.
    Why can't we explore new frontiers of creativity without disrespecting victims? There are so many things to explore in the human psyche, why must we focus on such a sensitive issue?

    Would you find this potentially "funny" scene funny if someone close to you had been raped?
    I am sorry, but I would like to live in a society where at least a few things are still sacred.

    ..things like rape and child abuse will never be funny, and if they are funny to someone, I'd be worried for that person.

  6. le - I'm not endorsing the hypothetical, nor am I agreeing that the individual in the postulation SHOULD be praised as a "unique voice." All I'm saying is that if past behavior can be taken as an indication of future trends, this is likely how it WOULD happen... and we're steadily moving toward that eventuality.

  7. I didn't think he actually wrote that scene. I have read all his posts as tongue in cheek and have gone out of my way in my comments to demonstrate that I *get* it so any readers who were not sure if he was serious or not would see he is taking the p*ss. His posts are funny in parody.

    As for the rape scene, as a woman, I actually accept the point - why is it OK to violate men but not women? I don't think it is OK to either gender.

    I agree the taboo will be broken but it will be met with disgust and derision, so its a brave person to try advance a serious career by doing so. A funny script that breaks a taboo is funny for that reason, isn't it of itself a joke at the fact the movie could never be made, but here is that scene in black and white?

    I personally don't think rape is entertainment, but then neither is murder and violence and I don't shy away from violent movies. But I don't think one should equate what you find compelling on screen, knowing it is not real, with a moral stance or ethical tolerance. And I know there are manay many more considerations that affect the discussion of violence and morally unacceptable behaviour in films (cause, effect etc) than could possibly be discussed here. I don't purport to go there. But as a female writer, and noting you wanted to hear from us, these are my foremost thoughts.

    PS - if a blogger is seeking to make controversial parody blogs topics, and then write about taboos, the bar is pretty high (which is kind of the point you make), so I wasn't shocked or offended.

  8. are we debating whether or not rape is funny or if it has any place in entertainment? I think those are two very different topics.

    I don't think rape is funny because it's taboo. in fact, I think the whole premise that mr. bitter and mr. stryker have founded on what constitutes as funny is faulty.

    taboo has never made anything funny. just ask the 10,000 college guys out there right this second who are making rape jokes, or go to any amatuer improv night to see another edgy troupe that once again ends a sketch with rape, or racism, or child molestation.

    knowing the topic isn't enough, one still has to be able to come up with a take on it, build the joke, then surprise the audience with the punchline - and the punchline can't just be "rape" or "violence". Marvin's head being blown off was sort of a punchline in pulp fiction - it caught the audience by surprise, but it was more of a set up for the characters to try to out-casual each other in the aftermath, each person trying his best to be cool with the headless corpse, and trying to deal with the clean up as suavely as possible, but whatever.

    Louis CK's rape jokes are very funny. He comes from a very human place and plays with people's fascination with the awful and the taboo. He knows taboo alone isn't funny, that's hacky, that's Carlos Mencia stuff - Louie delves into the topic, pretends that he's above it, then doubles right back at the audience right here:

    same thing with slurs - he understands people's fascination with it. he didn't just make a gay joke, he speaks of his fascination with the word "faggot" and what makes him want to say it. other words, he's honest about his own reaction to taboo and isn't trying to manipulate it for cheap laughs, which, incidentally, makes him much funnier:

  9. nmegan - a terrific and insightful response. I think you make a lot of great points. Thanks for commenting so much this week.

    pete - You raise some interesting points and I really like what you add to the discussion.

    And Julie, I realize I kind of overlooked your response when I posted last time. You raise some good points too, and I wish I had a better response than thanks, but that was a really awesome reply.

    Mostly, I'm just very grateful that such mature people read my blog that we can have an intelligent discussion like this without having to worry about it being trolled or derailed. I'm very impressed by the level of discourse in here.


  11. Thank you for that post Bitter, you make some interesting points. But you asked women to respond, and here is the reason I disagree (apologies in advance for what I already feel is building up to be a ramble...)

    Most taboos are funny because they are unquestionably ludicrous. As someone pointed out above, Holocaust jokes tend to make the Nazis the butt rather than the Jews, and if you look at it from the right perspective, the idea that all Germany's social and economic problems at the time could be fixed by ridding the world of Jewish people is ridiculous. It's idiotic. It's "what were they smoking when they came up with that bright idea?" And therefore, in the right hands, potentially funny.

    Similarly, Tyler Perry's jokes tend to make fun of the black stereotypes that people once took seriously. Again funny, because racism is pretty universally condemned these days (in mainstream media at any rate, I'm not suggesting it doesn't exist any more in society), so it's funny to explore "remember when we really believed that black people were X Y Z..."

    The straight guy worrying about the prison showers gets to be funny because that homophobic idea that every gay guy - or every guy who doesn't have access to women - is just waiting to jump him specifically, is ridiculous and therefore funny.

    So what most taboo humour has in common is that the idea it plays with is universally condemned and/or considered ridiculous. There is a Muslim comedian in the UK whose routine is all about being routinely mistaken for a terrorist and he gets away with it, just about, but it's a much more uncomfortable laugh because there are still an awful lot of people out there who genuinely believe Muslim = terrorist. It's not quite ridiculous enough yet.

    And unfortunately, tragically, infuriatingly - the same applies to rape. Those insidious ideas of "but what was she wearing... what was her sexual history... did she invite the guy in before saying no... it's not like it would be that bad to be raped by him ... look at her, she was probably glad of a bit of action" are still out there, still horribly mainstream. They're in magazines you get in supermarkets, and on the View, and in casual, daily conversations amongst people who would never in a gazillion years admit to being a Nazi sympathizer or a racist - because those things aren't okay any more.

    So - apologies again for the ramble, but that, to me is why I can't yet laugh at rape. Having said all that, I suppose I'm saying that I hope one day rape will be hilarious... and that's something I never thought I'd type!

  12. Tyler Perry can stereotype african americans because stereotypes exist for a reason. Yeah, the characters are stereotyped, but, well done stereotypes.
    It's the difference between "hahaha! That's what black people are like!" and "hahaha! That's what Mrs. Johnson from down the street was like!".
    A white example would be 'The Big Lewboski'. If you've never known anyone like The Dude, he's just some stereotype. If you've known people like him, he's a great character. He captures a certain segment of society. He's a positive character. He's the hero of the film. If a black dude made that movie, no one would call the race card. If Michael Bay made a Tyler Perry movie, I doubt anyone would as well. To write something like that, you have to truly know the characters. Perry does.
    As to humor, I remember an interview I saw on tv with John Cleese, and he spoke on 'taboo' humor, and pointed out that there are different kinds of laughs. There are real, honest laughs, and there are kind of awkward "I can't believe they went there!" laughs.
    'The Producers', or 'Blazing Saddles' isn't shocking for shocking sake. They find humor in characters, and situations, not in shock. It may have been shocking, but it doesn't RELY on the shock to get the joke across. Those movies are still funny now, even when the subject matter is far less taboo.
    But what do I know. I live in Wisconsin, and have actually fucked cows.
    And for the record, it's not as funny, or sexually satisfying as one might expect.

  13. hey, aren't you supposed to be on vacation? ;)

    i'm more a lurker than a commenter, but you asked for us girls to speak up, so... i think you've raised a very good point here and done so in a sensible, intelligent way. Definite kudos. :D

    also, it makes me smile every time i see a guest post by Tripp. You should keep him around. :D

  14. I have only ever heard one rape joke that I thought was funny. Including the Carlin bit.

    It was sketch. I think by the Midnight Show out here at UCB Los Angeles, about a guy on trail for rape and he was claiming self defense. He raped her before she could rape him. The character was written so he was constantly afraid that women were about to rape him. It was pretty darn funny.

  15. I'm torn on this. On the one hand, I have laughed at rape jokes aimed at men, but it's true, I'm not sure I'd think the same joke was funny if aimed at a woman.

    And let's face it, child abuse IS funny when Homer Simpson does it.

    I've never written any rape scenes or child abuse scenes myself, though. So I will have to ponder this.

  16. Male rape jokes, especially anything in a prison context, tend to be hacky.

    Sexually assaulting a woman is far worse in our minds because of reasons owing to evolutionary psychology; XXs are the choosier sex due in small part to pregnancy. Eggs are more expensive than sperm.

    If somebody can figure out a way to make rape funny, then more money to them.

    Trypp whatever's post immediately reminded of Eszterhas' book that brags about the bestiality script (have his claims been independently verified because I have a feeling that guy exaggerates whenever given the chance). Anyway, Eszterhas' character RAPES a cow.

  17. Minor mathematical qualm:

    If you got a nickel for every script that a writer claimed was "the most loved unfilmed script," you wouldn't have enough money to produce ALL those films. You'd only have a nickel per film.

    Rape might potentially be funny in the right hands. But I feel confident that Tripp Stryker does not have those hands.

  18. Thanks for opening this discussion, BSR, it's an interesting and tricksy thing. As a lady lurker (that sounds a little gross, sorry) 'round here, I have some thoughts on this.

    As the first commenter up there eloquently mentioned, Holocaust and Hitler jokes work because they are making fun of the Nazis, not the Jewish victims. The humor or satisfaction of those scenes often lies in the fact that they are subverting a power structure.
    (I would also argue that the Holocaust was a long time ago, and rape is an ongoing evil; as another commenter mentioned, even Muslim terrorist/Sept 11th jokes can still be a little "too soon." I think that if rape were some crazy horrible thing that men USED to do to women 100 years ago but not now, it would be far less of a "taboo.")

    We may be willing to accept man-on-man rape as funny because we're assuming the playing field (power-wise) is level, whereas man-on-woman rape — or man-on-child rape — is not funny because the victim (the woman or child) often doesn't stand a chance of "winning."
    Woman-on-man rape is considered funny by many because it reverses the loser/winner structure. Like the part in "American Pie" when Alyson Hannigan's character aggressively has sex with Jason Biggs's character and screams "Say my name, bitch!" which would not be funny if the roles were reversed. It would be sad and scary. But because the person who would usually be the victim is now in the powerful position, viewers can feel comfortable laughing at it.

    I think a lot of it has to do with turning a typically horrifying situation (genocide, rape) around so the victim suddenly has power, making it "okay" to laugh at.

    I saw an improv scene at UCB in NY with Scott Adsit (Pete on "30 Rock") and Christina Gausus in which they were on a first date when he pulled a gun on her and said he was going to rape her. She cowered and after a minute or so he calmly put away the gun and pretended it didn't happen. She relaxed and they continued the date, and then again he wielded the gun and said horrible things to her, etc. and then put it away. He did this Jekyll and Hyde-type thing for a while, eliciting a few uneasy laughs from the audience (the actors committed & played it VERY real, like, her character was near tears) until finally at the end, Gausas's character revealed that she actually liked rape play, and suddenly it was like relief filled the room. It was EXTREMELY uncomfortable to watch Adsit threaten and advance on her onstage as though about to rape her — until she, the victim, took back the power by "liking it" (which is problematic in its own way, but anyway).

    A trickier situation is the scene in "Observe and Report" when Seth Rogen's character is having sex with Anna Faris's character, but Anna Faris is so blackout drunk she's basically asleep with a pool of vomit near her face. He stops when he realizes she's not responding at all and asks if she's asleep. She groggily responds, with her eyes closed: "Why'd you stop, bitch?" or something like that. For some people that scene was not too funny until she made that comment, and then it all seemed okay. Of course, for a lot of other people (especially female viewers, myself included) the scene is still disturbing because having sex with someone who is too drunk to know what's going on (or participate in the act) is rape.
    So it's a "funny scene" for those viewers who don't see it as rape. Once you do view it as rape, it's not a funny scene at all.

    This is insanely long now, but basically I think a lot of humor about "taboos" boils down to reversing the power structure.

  19. Excellent reply, Kate. You're absolutely right -- it comes down to the fact men are usually more physically powerful than women, and so can force women.

    The other aspect is that there are just too many assholes out there who see women as sex objects. There was a real dick over at ScriptShadow posting about "what he knows" about women not three days ago which revealed hostility and contempt towards women.

    And BTW, isn't Trypp Stryker just Bitter's dark side?

  20. I know this is wicked old by now, but I just came across it, and wanted to add a couple thoughts to the discussion:

    We've already seen both rape and child molestation played successfully for humor before. In the Aristocrats, Sarah Silverman blithely relates an "audition" she had with famed talent agent Joe Franklin in which she was duped into having sex with him, only realizing in the process of telling the story that "Joe Franklin raped me!" Child molestation was famously played for humor by Buck Henry on SNL in a sketch that introduced one of the show's first recurring characters.

    Both instances were met with only minor controversy even though in both sketches the victims are the butt of the joke. I think it's telling that the in both sketches, the 'victims' are not even aware of the assault as it's going on, and thus, the audience is spared the discomfort of having to envision the horror experienced by real rape survivors.

    Trypp Striker referenced the scene in which Marvin is accidentally shot by Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction. Imagine if, instead of simply turning into a headless corpse, Marvin is shot in the throat, and the audience sees him looking, barely comprehending but afraid, into Vince and Jules' eyes as the life drains out of him. Suddenly, not so funny.

    At the end of the scene, it all comes down to execution. Just about any taboo can be broken for humor, but it always, always, always require a certain degree of deftness and originality. Just breaking a taboo for its own sake is going to come across as insensitive no matter how many times that taboos been broken before.

    I would argue that the reason it seems like only people of a certain ethnicity can make fun of that ethnicity's foibles is more because a member of an ethnic group has a much more intimate and implicit understanding of the nuances of that ethnicity's stereotypes. In other words, people aren't simply more accepting of jokes about Jewish people when they come from Jews, it's just that Jews are much, much better at navigating around that invisible taboo line, without crossing it. What's more, a Jewish humorist would never find the simple act of making fun of Jews in its own right funny or interesting. It won't be all that transgressive to him/her, and therefore, will just be kind of flat and boring. That's why Mel Brooks' humor about Jews is usually the funniest to other Jews -- there are cultural nuances involved that only we will find familiar.

    Finally, I think the most telling part of Stryker's post is where he says "in [his] head" the rape played out hilariously. Isn't it pretty obvious where the problem is? If it plays that much better in his head than on the page, he just hasn't done his job as a screenwriter. He needs to keep doing rewrites until it pops off the page such that the prospective producer, director and actors see the same humor that he does. "Some people can't take a joke" is just a lazy cop out.